Beyond the Brushstrokes: Scheherezade Junejo’s Bold Reinterpretation of the Female Nude in Contemporary Art


Beyond the Brushstrokes: Scheherezade Junejo’s Bold Reinterpretation of the Female Nude in Contemporary Art

The artist's hyper-realistic nudes challenge societal norms offering a unique perspective on the female form within the context of a conservative Sou

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The artist’s hyper-realistic nudes challenge societal norms offering a unique perspective on the female form within the context of a conservative South Asian culture

Ever since man began creating images, he has been interested in depicting his likeness to tell stories and preserve and pass on knowledge about the culture, rituals and traditions of the time. The forms and styles used to depict the human body have gone through many iterations over time, varying between regions and cultures, from the stick figures of the prehistoric cave paintings to the idealism of Classical Greek art, the flattened perspective and religious iconography of Ancient Egypt and the Roman Medieval period to the realistic naturalism of the Renaissance, the figure in art, much like anything else, has been a response to the cultural and social needs of the time and place it was produced in.

With the advent of photography, realistic representations of the human form started to be viewed as redundant by the artists of the Modern era, and so it went from abstract, distorted and minimal as in the works of Mattise, Chagal and Picasso, to only present in gesture and imprints rather than conceivable image, as seen in Abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Art Nouveau performances Yves Klein. 20th century Avante Garde art placed more emphasis on experimentation and new ideas so that the image itself became secondary or completely discarded, as seen in works like “The Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich. This spirit of testing the boundaries of artmaking has continued into the 21st century, where contemporary practices have re-arranged the very definition of art and moved beyond it to a form of making that defies categorization.

Yet, in the works of many contemporary artists, hyper-realistic figure painting of yesteryears has re-emerged. In a world saturated with new media art, digital art and pristine AI-generated representations of reality available at our fingertips, is this another response to the needs of our time? In the works of Scheherezade Junejo, a Karachi-based artist working primarily in hyper-realistic nudes, this may be only partly true. Junejo’s work, like the works of many of her peers, responds to the cultural needs of our digital age, but at the same time, it is also a revolt against the conservative traditions of the culture within which it is created, specifically, the South Asian culture. While the former is done through a dehumanization and objectification of the body that occurs through compositional choices, color play and painting style, the latter manifests in the ways in which her bold and striking nudes are subtly yet deliberately de-sexualized. Junejo graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore in 2010 with a BFA (Honours) Degree in Painting. “I remember being a headstrong child growing up; if I was told to do something I couldn’t reason with, I would go all out to do the opposite. So when we were asked to make career choices the only thing I couldn’t reconcile with was settling for a 9 to 5 desk job. I had few strengths at the time, Art was one of my favourite subjects even though I was average at it. So with the help of my high-school Art teacher, Ayesha Khan, I convinced my parents to let me apply to NCA (National College of Arts, Lahore).”

While she dabbled in various styles and subject matter to find her voice during her formative years, and claims to have not taken her studies very seriously at the time, it was in her thesis year that she finally discovered her true calling in realistic figurative painting when she modeled for artist Amna Illyas, understanding and appreciating the beauty of human anatomy and postures through casts of isolated body parts that the Illyas was creating. Junejo pushed herself beyond her personal technical capacity, and the success and validation she received from her superiors allowed her to recognize her true potential. “When I created my first figurative painting towards the end of college, I experienced a deep sense of accomplishment I had never felt before. Since then, I’ve been chasing that feeling like an addict and haven’t stopped till today.” Junejo highlights the ever-expanding greed and hunger that drive consumerist societies, pushed to new heights in the age of globalization and digital media, turning people into commodities defined by artificial digital identities curated for the pleasure and consumption of strangers. “In such a time, one’s character and uniqueness should be celebrated. Instead, society seeks to fit everyone into a place, a mold,” says Junejo. “Identities are built on concepts of vanity and ownership rather than modesty and accountability. Animate and inanimate are no longer distinguishable.”

As a response to this, Junejo enforces a kind of objectification upon her very expressive and sensual nude figures. “Using her knowledge and study of human anatomy, Scheherezade attempts to highlight the duality in our psychosis, while simultaneously trying to de-objectify/re-objectify the nude form.” In order to comment on this disintegration of the human condition in our times, Junejo translates this concept quite literally onto her canvas, as a sort of satire of the artifice of our digital consumerist world that commodifies the human body through sexual commerce. This is done through multiple mechanisms that at once de-sexualize and dehumanize the body. John Berger, in his book “Ways of Seeing”, discusses how the canons of traditional European figure painting treat the female nude as a sight catering to the sexual pleasure of the viewer, presumed to be primarily male, with no real sexual desire or agency of her own. To this end, her actions, gestures, and expressions are for the appeasement of the surveyor of the painting, her body arranged to provide the most ideal view, despite narrative incongruency, and her attention turned away from her supposed lover within the frame and towards the viewer outside of it. “This picture is made to appeal to [the viewer’s] sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.”

On the other hand, in Junejo’s paintings, the figures either look away into the void within the painting, or their faces are not visible at all. In many cases, they are covered by objects, masks, or animal heads. This seems to serve the contradictory purpose of not only removing the element of seduction but the humanizing element altogether. It is interesting to speculate whether our sexuality is so firmly tethered to our humanness that one cannot be removed without also removing the other. It is somehow reminiscent of the Guerilla Girls poster, “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?” (1989) which also comments on the sexualization of women in art and their simultaneous under-representation as artists by stating the statistic by the MET Museum “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” The poster includes a reproduction of the female nude figure from French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s painting Grande Odalisque (1814), with a gorilla mask placed over the head. In both works this serves multiple purposes, some aligned while others not, from anonymity, re-contextualization, reclaiming of the female body, and ownership.

Furthermore, the process of de-sexualization in Junejo’s work can also be understood through the antinomy of nakedness and nudity discussed by Berger. While a nude is a naked body on display, nakedness has a sexual function, which is the result of the comfort and relief experienced in its banality. “We need the banality which we find in the first instant of disclosure because it grounds us in reality.” Junejo’s work is doing the opposite of that; creating an unnatural, surreal view of the human form, hyper-realistically rendered yet not grounded in reality. The element of banality distinguishes between voyeur and lover and is an essential element in any great sexual image of the naked, according to Berger. Thus, the process of de-sexualization in Junejo’s work hinges upon the removal of this banality. Every minute gesture and detail is carefully catered toward creating this effect. The figures are bent, twisted, and stretched into highly contrived and dramatic postures that are inspired by the artist’s interest in dance, mime, yoga and theatre – a farce. The well-toned and lithe bodies seem to be at once in motion and static, elegant and poised, yet in a state of perpetual discomfort. The musculature and bone under soft skin are rendered in stark chiaroscuro, with a clinical, almost academic treatment of the figure through the artist’s meticulously planned, “surgical” process which removes any sense of subjectivity. The perspectives hide certain parts of the body from view, while others are enlarged, foreshortened, or elongated. The striking beauty of the nude figures is undercut by the peculiarity of the postures and morphed objects and animal heads, creating a sense of unease. “There is intentional distortion of the body’s natural physiology; Junejo is experimenting with a theoretical reality of the body and in that instance politicizing it.” There are no personal markers; no face, no fat pouches, body hair, whimsical curves, protrusions or bulges, cellulite or moles, not even sexual organs, that would distinguish an individual. Even gender specificity is removed, making the figures exceedingly impersonal. The figures exist in spaces far removed, either black or white voids, which serve the purpose of putting these generic, ideal specimens on display, meant to be seen and admired. In that sense, the concept of the ‘nude’ in art is satirized. “In lived sexual experience, nakedness is a process rather than a state,” says Berger, and in Junejo’s work, nudity is a state. It is static in the way it is presented, the poses highly choreographed and theatrical, catered for display and consumption.

This antinomy of the nude and naked also allows us to understand the concept of disguise in Junejo’s work. She says, “I also used my work to make comments on how social culture affects us; how we like to borrow elements of strong personalities we see around us and wear them almost as skin or as a façade to conceal our own ineptitude and appear as someone stronger or bolder.” In an artificial world, nudity might seem like an unclothing, to reveal who we really are. However, in Junejo’s work, it becomes symbolic of a façade for display; “The yellow tones I have used in certain figures were used to denote the “wearing of skin” as a façade, or something artificial.” As Berger puts it, “to be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. The naked body has to be seen as an object to become nude. Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.” In this sense, Junejo’s figures almost seem to be an exaggeration of this concept of the nude into satire, turning the naked body into a literal object put on display. Other elements have entered Junejo’s work at different points in her career to further accentuate this theme while bringing in additional narrative threads. In her earlier works, the artist used color more heavily as a narrative device; “I used it to highlight the essence of what experience does to innocence. The white figure was symbolic of purity or virginity, like an untouched canvas, and the color seeping onto the body along with elements of stitches created the taint, unrest and discomfort that experiences add to an innocent mind and body.” In other works, the objects that appeared alongside these bodies are in color, while the body itself is black and white which lays emphasis on the higher value placed on objects, ‘stuff’, as compared to ourselves, our relationships, human interactions and experiences.

In later works, the color palette recedes into black and white as the artist begins a study of polarity, and the figures begin to multiply into mirrored and kaleidoscopic repetitions, representing a multiplicity of thought. These compositional choices heighten the ambiguity of the figures as people, turning them into shapes, forms, motifs, or design elements at a distance, as they meld and fuse into one another and limbs and contours lose all semblance of meaning and recognizability. “With time, my paintings have evolved into highly choreographed visuals denoting the many personalities each of us has latent within us. I chose to represent these ‘many minds within one’ through the balance of symmetry and asymmetry…Through rotation, repetition and manipulation I seek to de-objectify our perception of the nude figure.” Yet, as touched upon earlier, along with this commentary on our collective global culture, Junejo’s nude figure paintings are also a response to the specific Pakistani society she is a part of, which makes the use of this tradition highly relevant in today’s world. In a country where the sight of a woman’s hair, or even the skin on her arms can be deemed a sexual provocation, it becomes a bold and subversive statement to so openly display the female nude form, even in a closed gallery space. Junejo explains, “Because we live in a conservative environment here, our process of socialization teaches us from a very young age that nudity, especially for women, is something to be ashamed of. This has serious consequences for our society. It inculcates a narrow-minded view of women. Nudity is seen as sexual deviancy or promiscuity for women. It teaches us to view nudity as sexual desire and nothing more. By trying to make the female nude a part of our visual language, I am attempting to dispel the myth of sexualisation in nudity and make it something which can be viewed with respect and admiration rather than covetousness, shame or discomfort.”

This goes back to the passive role of women in society and is perhaps not limited to South Eastern cultures. Berger puts it most simply; “men act, and women appear.” Women are taught from an early age that their value as a person is tied to how they present themselves, and through their appearance, they tell others how they want to be treated. Thus, the male gaze becomes a controlling mechanism, which she eventually comes to internalize in order for greater control over the process. While men enjoy looking at her, the blame falls upon her for wanting to be looked at, and directing male behavior by appearing a certain way. This is perhaps why, when a nude is painted through the female gaze, it becomes even more provocative, even as it is being de-sexualized, seen as an act of vanity. The male gaze is unable to remove sexual desire from the visual of a female nude, yet it frustrates it that it is not the sole intended audience of the display. Yet, the question then arises, if the satire is lost on a mainstream audience, and the images can still be enjoyed as sexual, do they instead feed into the problem and become what they critique? This issue arises with a lot of media that satirizes problematic elements in our society, as the intended caricature instead becomes idolized by the very factions it is trying to critique.

Most recently it can be seen in the case of the new Barbie Movie, where the commentary on themes of sexualization, objectification, the patriarchy and capitalism is made through the use of these very processes and feeds further into the consumerist culture. Even though the viewer becomes the perpetrator in such cases, and their response reveals significant truths about our society, are the effects not more important than the intended message? Does this challenge harmful traditions or further them? Does art like this do more damage or good for female representation?

Of course, when making such a comparison what is paramount is the ownership and patronage of both art forms. Mass media and capitalist industry and their exploitation of liberal rhetoric for their own agenda is very different from visual art in Pakistan with an individual author/owner, expressing personal opinions and vested interests for a niche art audience/market. While the former benefits big corporations, the latter is interested in revealing truths about the society that it is created in, hoping to be part of a change that might one day manifest and benefit us all as a people.